Austria is the latest frontier in the debate over the limits of anonymity on the internet.
Earlier this week, the government proposed a new law that would force users of online forums to give operators their first name, last name and home address.
Users would still be allowed to post using nicknames, but operators would, upon request by authorities, be forced to hand over users’ real data. In some cases, private citizens could also be provided this information.
Although proponents of the law, called “Diligence and Responsibility on the Web,” say it will help tackle hateful comments online, it will not apply to the vast majority of neo-Nazi and other extreme-right websites – that is, some of the internet’s darkest, most hate-filled corners will get a pass.
The freedom of the internet
Internet censorship is a contentious issue. Many argue that outlawing anonymity will discourage people from making hateful and malicious comments. Others argue that such censorship is both unnecessary – the efficacy of such censorship laws is unknown, as it’s unclear to what extent anonymity promotes hate speech – and as a direct attack on fundamental rights like free speech and privacy.
Online platforms would fall under the scope of the law if they meet one or more of the following criteria: the platform has an annual revenue in excess of 500,000 euros; has more than 100,000 registered users; or receives more than 50,000 euros in government subsidies.
These are self-defeating criteria. By setting the levels so high, almost none of the most extreme-right websites in Austria – like alpen-donau.info and unzensuriert.at – will fall under it. It's nearly impossible to claim that this is a serious attempt to combat hate speech when it deliberately does not police the web's most notorious bastions of hate.
Those platforms that do come under the law will face extremely harsh fines should they fail to comply with it – up to 500,000 euros.
A threat to fundamental rights
Opponents of the law note that it is essentially a censorship law. And by not applying to the places where most hateful comments are posted, critics fairly argue that the bill is little more than an attempt by the government to limit anti-government dissent and criticism.
Sigi Maurer is an Austrian Green Party politician whose own fight against hateful posts is being cited as proof that the law is needed. But she wants no part of it. “The government abused my case to propose this censorship law,” she said.
Mario Lindner, the diversity spokesman for the Social Democratic Party, which opposes the law, pointed out that anonymity isn’t actually much of a driver of hateful comments, as people readily use their real names when posting such messages.
“What the government has presented is not a solution to the challenges that are facing us in the digital space,” Lindner said.
MEP candidate Claudia Gamon went further, saying the law was quite possibly “an attack on the free internet.”
Other critics of law include digital rights groups and activists. Epicenter Works has called the law a “compulsory ID law” and a “massive overreach of data protection.”
Anonymous speech is free speech
The bill is still very much a draft, but the weight of the government seems behind it, and, should this remain so, it would almost surely pass and become law by 2020.
There are serious concerns about whether it is in line with the European Convention on Human Rights, and there is also uncertainty over the European Commission's view of it, an important consideration because the bill will reach to websites outside of Austria that are frequented by users from the country.
But the first step, and perhaps most important, is for citizens to make clear their opposition to the law. Anonymous speech is an incredibly important part of free speech. It allows us to say things that are unpopular but not hateful, and allows us to receive and share information of about truly life-changing issues. Just imagine you’re a young member of the LGBT community trying to discuss coming out.
There's also a very real security concern. We live in a world of data breaches. It’s just a fact of life. Would you like your home address stored by every online forum you wish to use?